AT A RECENT New York City screening of The Wrestler, one decidedly homeless-looking fellow stood out in the smartly dressed crowd. He was 300 pounds in a billowing red flannel shirt and sweatpants with a crude Grizzly Adams haircut and lugging an oversized duffel bag. It was former WWE champion Mick Foley, now 43, and he was there to see the latest work of director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), a heartbreaking portrait of a washed-up pro wrestler that took top honors at the Venice Film Festival and has done the impossible: created Oscar buzz around Mickey Rourke. I took a seat next to Foley, and more than a few times during the film's 105 minutes he leaned over to me and whispered things like, "That was sooo dead-on, man. They nailed it!"
The wrestler Foley was watching was Randy (the Ram) Robinson, a fortysomething beefcake who's barely scraping by in the lower ranks of the professional wrestling circuit, where former champs like the Ram fake tussle with up-and-comers in 500-seat hotel ballrooms. The Ram's life outside the ring is just as grim: dreary autograph shows where no one shows up; a ramshackle trailer home, the rent for which is barely covered by last night's take of the gate; and the locker room steroid deals, which are bound to get the WWE's tights in a tangle. When the Ram has a heart attack after a show of choreographed but especially brutal violence, his doctor tells him to quit.
Finding dignity in retirement can be tricky, even for the greats. The duffel bag that Foley—who used to go by names like Mankind and Cactus Jack—carried contained a Santa Claus suit that he was going to wear at a Twisted Sister concert later that night. He's not broke, he explained, but he's still making appearances on the road at least 10 days a month. It's even tougher for the Ram, who passes the time trying to reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). He gets a job working at a deli counter, which he enjoys about as much as Brett Favre would like yard work in November. So he agrees to a grudge match with an old adversary, The Ayatollah, just to hear the crowd again, health be damned. "With a little luck this could be my ticket back on top," he says. The poor bastard.
Rourke, who once starred in movies like
Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and 9 1/2 Weeks, is brilliant after years spent dabbling in boxing (he was 6-0-2 with four KOs as a pro) and being crazy. If he's nominated for an Oscar, they'll show a scene in which he blubbers, "I'm an old broken-down piece of meat." But he makes the role his own with more subtle touches: the way he flicks his long bleached-blond hair, the buzz saw voice and the labored breathing.
What elevates The Wrestler from a character study to the best sports film of the year, though, is its universal message. The screenplay, by former Onion editor in chief Robert Siegel, could apply to anyone who relies on his or her body to make a living, and it describes the struggles—destitution, detachment—that come when that body breaks down. There's also a parallel plotline involving Marisa Tomei as the Ram's aging stripper girlfriend. The Ram and the stripper could be anyone, Aronofsky says, "a football or baseball player, a ballerina.... There are hundreds of thousands of people who can say this is their story."